Book review / Laugh? He really died

Peter Cook: a biography by Harry Thompson, Hodder & Stoughton, pounds 18.99
Peter Cook casts a long shadow. He wasn't just one of the funniest men who ever lived; he was also one of the most ... there's a terrible Glaswegian word trotted out when judgement has to be tempered with courtesy. "Effective." You go to see a friend's show. It stinks. What do you say? You say "Aye, well, it wur eh - vair ... effective."

But Cook was effective. Among all the funerary orations, all the media- maven talk about the Satire Age and Cook's linguistic surrealism, lies the truth that, by a series of precisely-observed, oblique assaults, he revealed the British Establishment for what it was: a self-perpetuating oligarchy of ignorant, sequestered, overgrown schoolboys. Once we had seen them with their grey flannel trousers round their spindly ankles, they would never again receive deference by simply demanding it as their right.

It wouldn't have worked had Cook just been funny. Morecambe and Wise were funny, but in the end existed in the hermetically-sealed world of Comedy-Land. Nor would it have been enough if Cook had also been true. Jacques Tati was true - moments in M Hulot's Holiday pin down the reality of life for the nebbish so precisely that they make the hair stand on the back of the neck - but it was like a musical truth. The illumination it offered was purely local.

Cook was both funny and true, and what made him so ... effective was a combination of his absolute Britishness, and that he offered an answer as well as raising a question. The question was Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling, and even his duck-training precursor, in Cook's Cambridge days, could not have been anything other than a member of the self-regarding, deluded and fruitily vacuous English administrative classes:

"It's quite an achievement, really. I mean these ducks are completely under my control; eating's become second nature to them now ... I was thinking, perhaps it's a bit too ambitious, but I was thinking of trying to get them up in the air - training them to fly." It's the voice of every politician, every paunchy industrialist, every arse-faced bank manager who ever tried to take credit for the enterprise of others. Cook didn't try to demolish; he didn't imitate; he merely said, "Here is this type of man. Look at him, and make of it what you will."

And the answer was EL Wisty: the droning, semi-comatose Everyman, below whose greasy cloth cap, beneath whose drizzle-stained mac throbbed and seethed a world of baroque imaginings erected on a base of ignorance, isolation and wild paranoia. Wisty was an only slightly exaggerated portrait of Tabloid Man, the perfect opposition to Cook's establishment morons. It's always tricky, making big claims for comic inventions, but Cook's comedy was genuinely revolutionary, dethroning the flannelled overlords and putting, in their place, Wisty's Everyman.

For a man who seemed incapable of planning anything at all, Cook's comic assault on the institution of Britishness seems with hindsight to have a near-military precision. You couldn't imagine it done better if you filled the Albert Hall with droning strategists. But it wasn't planned. Cook couldn't plan. And all this means that a biography of Peter Cook is more important than yet another warty life of yet another well-loved showbiz figure.

It's a daunting task, but Harry Thompson, a distinguished denizen of the comedy establishment, brings it off with self-effacing panache. Out of Cook's utterly disordered life, he has constructed a narrative with the compulsive grip of an airport best-seller. At first sight, the plot which emerges seems to be essentially tragic, since tragedy speaks "Of the fall of illustrious men". Peter Cook didn't fall. In the end, he died. But he didn't fall. And in the end, Thompson's book is the tale of a man at the mercy of his own life.

Or, more precisely, at the mercy of the British Establishment. Cook's father was a colonial administrator in Nigeria, showing the black chappie what was what. The common pattern was tacked willy-nilly over Cook's young life: separated from parents, sent to live in Yew-Kay with Grandmama, prep school, public school, the assumption that he would follow his father into colonial service - the well-tried method which bred hundreds of thousands of petrified, emotionally-castrated Englishmen. If wicked scientists crept into your room and said, "Look, old chap, we need a generation of dysfunctional neurotics", that's the way you'd go about it.

But all comedians are dysfunctional, seized-up, emotionally crookbacked or at the very least a bit creaky. All of them. The standard explanation is that comedy is a defence, that there comes the magic moment when the embryo comedian finds he can deflect the bullies' fists with words. Like most standard explanations, it's bollocks. The flaw, the crack, the deracination come first. Jokes come from the same source that attracts bullies. Scratch any comedian and you'll find someone who doesn't feel he belongs.

Even Cook: tall, well-born, breathtakingly beautiful until the booze swelled him like a poisoned dog, swift-witted, articulate, he could have drifted straight into the Establishment. Except that he couldn't. Something in him wouldn't swallow it, couldn't take it seriously, saw it for what it was. That was a big part of his iconic appeal: he could have belonged but chose not to. And he chose not to because he had no choice.

The terrible thing is that one day we may start treating comedians. Compassion, kindness, 12-step programmes. "Don't laugh at him; he can't help it." Wean them off the girls, the pills, the booze, the cheap, fretful sex, the jeering surrealism, the hunger for applause, the disorganisation. John Cleese has already done it: embraced the idea of comedy-as-dysfunction, talked it through, come to know himself, got better.

And the even more terrible thing is, we may be right to treat comedy like alcoholism. They follow similar paths. They start with the feeling that you aren't enough by yourself, that you don't belong by right; and they both end head-first in the brick wall, when the jokes won't come, when you simply can't drink enough to make the lights go on, when the coiled spring of ancient neurosis finally bursts through the carefully- constructed casing of gags or booze. But then what? Do you spend the rest of your life talking about how miserable you were and how much better you are now? And who will listen? John Cleese? Hello!?

Peter Cook ran through the entire gamut. Thompson lays out the whole story: the one-night stands, the brothels, the adulation, the failure, the electric precision of effortless wit, the rows with Dudley Moore, the sodden rage of Derek and Clive, the beauty, the bloated horrors, the fame, the obscurity, the doomed marriages, the money, the spindrift of tax demands by the letterbox. In the end, his last and angriest wife, Lin Chong, tried to cure him, offering the curious vision of Cook as a reformed, contented pantaloon, pottering by his fishpond, sniffing the Hampstead flowers. It didn't work. He didn't fall; he died.

It must have been, in both senses, a hell of a life. Wasted, as some suggested? No. If you want a wasted life, turn to the respectable BBC functionary who ordered the destruction of the Not Only ... But Also tapes, refusing even to allow Cook to keep a copy on video-cassette. His justification was that the tapes were a "renewable resource". Peter Cook, alas, was not.